At the Savin Rock Museum in West Haven, CT

Classic Rock

Most amusement parks thrive on nostalgia for a time nobody’s old enough to directly remember—when calliope music was cutting-edge, and caramel corn was as trendy as cronuts.

For decades, West Haveners had their very own amusement park where they could enjoy both. But that place is long gone, preserved only in memory.

That, in turn, is preserved primarily by the Savin Rock Museum, which is shrouded in rain the day of my visit. Nearby, customers of Jimmie’s at Savin Rock hurry to and from their cars, while, on the beach, miserable-looking lifeguards keep watch from elevated chairs. The tiny museum is nestled in the Savin Rock Conference Center, whose front is dedicated to West Haven’s firemen, replete with a restored vintage fire engine, but today, I’m more interested in roller coasters and carousels.

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The story of the Savin Rock amusement park starts with an entrepreneur. Colonel George R. Kelsey was a businessman with a business plan. In 1870, he built a pier for steamships in West Haven out into the Sound, along with a hotel, the Sea View, at 392 Beach Street. Meanwhile, he invested in the West Haven Horse Car Company, which in 1871 began connecting New Haven to Savin Rock, providing city residents a way to get to his hotel.

Other hotels and guest houses proliferated, and it wasn’t long before other attractions sprang up on the shore, such as a grove for strolling and a miniature elevated railway. A roller coaster was then built in 1885, extending over the water. Soon, musicians had a bandstand to keep crowds entertained. An area dubbed “Railroad Grove” was stocked with merry-go-rounds and shooting galleries.

But Savin Rock would really pick up at the turn of the century. Inspired by World’s Fairs, Savin Rock—along with amusement parks all over the country—became showcases for cutting-edge technological displays, like an electric tower with 20,000 bulbs that gleamed into the sky. Demonstrations of jaw-dropping engineering, like the launch of an airship—a sort of mini blimp—drew crowds.

In 1913, what the museum calls “The Grandest Carousel of the Century,” built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, was installed. One of its thoroughbreds, a chestnut stallion ironically named Silver Fox, now resides in the museum, completely still. But he used to be a “jumper,” carrying riders up and down as well as around.

As the century progressed at Savin Rock, things went from Gibson Girl to flapper. In 1922, the Liberty Pier was built, lined with funhouses and rides. Two enormous attraction entrances made to look like Bluebeard the folktale pirate—which the museum has recreated as cutouts—loomed over revelers, of which there were very, very many. A New Haven Register article reported on May 25, 1925, that 600,000 people had visited the park during a single weekend.

The next two decades would be the golden age for the park. Particularly popular attractions like the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, the Jitterbug Ride and the Mill Chutes were installed. Hotels continued to flourish, and the menus and tableware on display at the museum give a peek into the lavish dining once enjoyed along the West Haven shore.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. A massive fire ripped through Savin Rock on June 11, 1932, leaving Liberty Pier a charred ruin. Then, six years later, a Category 5 hurricane lashed New England. It had a huge death and damage toll, and Savin Rock wasn’t spared. Most of the buildings on the water were destroyed.

The park was rebuilt. Some of the most famous newer attractions, like Laff in the Dark and the Death Valley funhouse, are still fondly remembered by those who grew up with them.

Little could they know that the seaside resort’s heyday was approaching dusk. In the years after World War II, the park gained an unsavory reputation, as attractions fell into disrepair and illicit gambling and other criminal activities at the park made headlines.

Dovetailing with the era of federally funded redevelopment, Savin Rock’s days were numbered. In a New York Times article published September 29, 1963, the plan was set forth: Savin Rock, now “a rather honky-tonk summertime place of sideshows, hot-dog stands and other typical amusement park diversions,” was to be razed for housing. The park was bulldozed in 1967 and 1968, with only one survivor still standing today: Jimmie’s.

Now, Beach Street, once the main drag of the park, is just a beach street. Bordering a trail and seashore, the area’s a popular spot in summer, albeit not as popular as it used to be, when millions of people would seek the thrills of Savin Rock.

Savin Rock Museum
6 Rock St, West Haven (map)
Wed, Fri, Sun 1-4pm June to early December
(203) 937-3680
$4, or $2 for adults over 60 and children under 12

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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